An Island Chef Delves into the Food Culture of China

Chef Ilona Daniel’s journey into Chinese food started long before she ever set foot in China.

Ilona, a chef, culinary consultant, and accomplished food writer, said that the beginning of her Chinese food story started when she was a little girl.

“My family used to go to this Chinese restaurant not too far from where we lived. I remember how much the artwork captivated, how all the ‘newness’ swept me up into it. I still love those shell lotus pictures, painted bamboo canvases, and the almost alive stylized Mandarin characters.”

With Prince Edward Island’s growing Chinese population the time is right for anyone interested in exploring this rich food culture.

Chef Ilona answered a few of my questions about her love of the culture, the food, and the people of China.

Chef Ilona

What would you say are the differences between “real” Chinese food and what we eat here in North America?

There is way more soup on the go with real Chinese cuisine. There is even dessert soup! Another surprise was how soya sauce is actually meant to be used. Soya sauce is only used in cooking, one would never find soya in a bottle at a restaurant table, or even a home table. It’s a flavouring agent for cooking.

What was your biggest cultural hurdle to get over (other than language)?

It’s always the little things I find myself missing. For me it was the general lack of access to a good cup of coffee. Also, another tough situation to deal with, is being unable to drink the tap water. You have to drink bottled water or, as a foreigner, I would definitely become quite ill. This made me acutely aware of how necessary it is for us Canadians to protect and preserve all of our drinking water. Water is everything.

What is your favourite new-to-you ingredient?

One of my favourite new-to-me ingredients is dried tofu skin. It is available in PEI, and can be bought in different shapes. My favourite is the bowtie shape. It is not at all like how we think of tofu traditionally in the Western perspective. It’s almost like a really hearty pasta. I like to serve mine in a chicken broth with wood ear mushrooms, hot oil, Chinese spinach or amaranth.

Where do you source your ingredients?

We have a few Asian groceries here on PEI, and I like to visit them all! If you are, however, looking for a great one stop shop, I would recommend Global. If you are looking for GMO free soy products Leezen is amazing!! There is an Asian store across from the main Holland College campus that I think has the best selection of chillies, and steamed buns.

ls there a reluctance on the part of local Chinese restaurants to serve REAL cuisine?

I think there is still quite a barrier for us to access the real deal. I was speaking to someone who cooks at a noodle shop here on the Island, and he told me they make the food a bit differently for non-Asians: less spice, absence of sesame oil, or even vegetable variety use. I told him we want the real stuff, but I did admit that every so often I have a craving for sweet and sour chicken balls! That being said, I also told him I understood that wasn’t Chinese in the very least, but just a guilty pleasure. I wish we had a dim sum restaurant, I think I’d live there….!

You’re on your way to China again. What are doing there and what will you be bringing back to PEI?

This will be my second time over to China. I will be lecturing at 3 different universities in mainland China. The schools are in 3 different provinces with a unique culture, and cuisine. I will be seeking to learn more about Mongolian cuisine, as well as a few specific sweet rice dishes. I will be bringing back more techniques to share, and perhaps something I can translate into an upcoming cookbook.

 

As a curly haired, green-eyed, boisterous woman, I certainly stand out, and many people have come over to touch my hair, as they don’t really have that curly genetic code in their collective culture. At first, I was really weirded out, but I quickly learned to roll with it! I totally get it; I’m always after tastes, textures that I’ve never experienced, so my giant hair is fair game I suppose!

My students have been great. Their kindness and curiosity urges me to work even harder to truly give them the best course possible. I will be teaching beer and wine appreciation in a Western context. It’s a fun exchange of culture and there is never an issue with attendance in this course!  I have gotten along quite well for the most part, except for trying to get a cab. Cabbies are a bit resistant to drive around foreigners in certain areas.

It’s also quite surprising to see “old” China, and “new” China side by side. It is not uncommon to see a humble family of 4 packed tightly on a single scooter stopped beside a giant Hummer with a single passenger in Armani. It’s a land of contrasts, at times so poetic in its simplicity. Everything changes so quickly, and my students tell me capitalism is quickly replacing Confucianism.

The most eye-opening experience?

The Chinese people are so uniquely able to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear! They have cemented in me through living their truth to use every little bit you can, and that amazing food need not be out of reach for those with little money.

Rod Weatherbie

About Rod Weatherbie

Rod Weatherbie is a writer working in the hospitality industry. He spent a number of years in Toronto as a member of the financial press before returning to PEI. Rod has published one piece of short fiction, one book of poetry, and has had work published in Red Shift, the Antigonish Review, Mitre, and the Toronto Quarterly. He has also recently co-produced, co-directed, and acted in a stage production of old television shows.

He also like writing about food. Go figure.

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